State to keep close watch on five ‘turnaround’ schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas

Kristy Moody, principal of Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, walks with a kindergarten class in 2016, her first year at the school. Now entering her third year, state officials questioned whether she should continue at the school, given its latest D grade. But Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego called Moody “the right person” for the job. Fairmount Park is one of five chronically struggling schools in Pinellas and Hillsborugh counties under scrutiny by the state. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

State education officials on Wednesday approved plans in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to improve struggling schools — but with some conditions.

The Pinellas district will have to keep a close watch on Fairmount Park Elementary principal Kristy Moody to make sure she is not over-extending herself at the D-rated school.

And in Hillsborough, superintendent Jeff Eakins has to show he is staffing the schools that need help with highly performing teachers — and by the state measures, not the district’s own system.

Those orders came down at a meeting of the Board of Education in Orlando, where the board and education commissioner continued to press for consequences when schools fail repeatedly to meet state standards.

Hillsborough was the first of the two districts to make its case, beginning with the good news that instead of seven schools needing to hire an outside operator, as could have happened as a result of this year’s grades, only three will need that assistance.

Sheehy and Foster elementary schools continue to have D grades, and Oak Park Elementary has an F. The district hired Phalen Leadership Academies, an Indiana-based organization that runs schools similar to charters, to oversee those three.

Months before the grades came out, Eakins told the board, he placed Sheehy under principal Delia Gadson-Yarbrough, who has a strong track record from her years at Anderson Elementary.

“We changed the two other principals the day after the grades came out,” Eakins said. “We recruited some amazing leaders into these two schools.”

State education commissioner Pam Stewart, however, wanted to make sure the teachers were highly rated — and according to the state’s “value-added” system, not the one Hillsborough developed during its partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Value-added measures are designed to show the effect a teacher has on student learning growth based on test scores.

That issue was a problem for the district earlier this year, when the State Board chastised Eakins for delaying staff transfers at another group of schools with poor test scores.

Eakins, at the time, said the district’s own value-added measures showed the schools were improving. He said the law allowed Hillsborough to use its own system. But he was shut down and had to scramble mid-year to satisfy the state orders.

This time, Eakins told the board he is “crystal clear” on how to proceed.

To be sure, Stewart is asking for rosters of teachers for all three schools. Each must be rated “effective” or “highly effective,” according to the state system. If the teacher has no value-added score, either because he or she is new to the state or taught a subject for which there were no state tests, the Hillsborough evaluation score will do.

But, Stewart emphasized, there can be no teachers with unsatisfactory or “needs improvement” ratings.

In Pinellas, the relationship with the outside operator is different and superintendent Mike Grego faced a different set of questions.

Learning Sciences International has a long-standing relationship with the district and is on board to assist schools, with or without a state order.

Melrose Elementary, after a string of F grades, is “a very stable C that is knocking at the door of a B,” Grego said.

Lakewood Elementary, with an F, has a new principal and School Board chairwoman Rene Flowers said the district is focusing on student behavior there. “We’re on a positive road to recovery,” she said.

D-rated Fairmount Park Elementary, however, is beginning a third year under Moody’s leadership.

Board members asked Grego if that was really a good idea.

He said the school showed considerable improvement last year, with the exception of English language arts test scores.

“I believe that we have the right person,” he said, adding that the school has a strong assistant principal. “I am leaving both of them there, at least that’s my recommendation.”

Members of the state panel said Moody, who last led the Jamerson Elementary magnet school, has a reputation for over-extending herself. Grego and representatives of Learning Sciences said they believe they can set her straight in that area.

“We believe that she deserves an opportunity to stay in that school,” said Jennifer Reeves of Learning Sciences. “She is responding very well with her coach and in will not be everything at every moment to every kid.”

As with Hillsborough, Stewart said she will want to see rosters of teachers at Fairmount Park. The school has not received anything higher than a D or an F grade since 2009.

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